Spinoza, Part II (English)

„Spinoza holds the view that interpreting the Bible is identical with the method of interpreting nature. The reading of the book of nature consists in inferring the definitions of natural things from the data supplied by ‘natural history’. In the same way, the interpretation of the Bible consists in inferring the thought of the biblical authors, or the definitions of the biblical subjects qua biblical subjects from the data supplied by the ‘history of the Bible’.”

Leo Strauss, How to study Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise (1948)

I have finished the first part by mentioning that Spinoza was considered by many as an “atheist” but did not conform to the meaning of the term as we understand it today. Spinoza was not an atheist, or voted for an abandonment of religion as such. His critique of religion was for the benefit of religion itself and is first and foremost a critique of political tyranny in the name of religion.
Immediately when the “Tractatus Theologico-Politicus” was published anonymously in 1670 an outrage broke out. The original printed text had no author and contained no reference to Spinoza, a decision in accordance with his donors in order to protect him from official charges. But nevertheless it was well known who the author was and that his donors were sitting in the highest positions of the Amsterdam government. Jan de Witt, who was going to be brutally murdered only two years later was still powerful enough to calm down any violent unrest. But the book and his presumed author were condemned by the conservative elites with very similar terms the cherem has used. “Heresy”, “Atheism”, “Godlessness”, “Satan”, “abominable” etc., were among those words thrown at him not only in Holland but this time throughout Europe.  Among scholars, intellectuals, the clergy, the noblemen and the common people, Spinoza was for quite a while the most hated man in Europe. The public pressure and constant smear campaigns forced Spinoza’s friends and supporters to denounce him. Leibniz for instance felt that it was better for him not to express too much friendly words about Spinoza and denied any stronger affiliation or even friendship in public. With his heresies Spinoza had pissed off the Jewish community, with his philosophy the whole world. So, from his perspective only little had changed. Spinoza took the consequences and decided to become invisible. Until his death in 1677 he never again published anything, did not talk in public or tried to attract attention. He lived quietly and worked on the “Ethics”, which appeared after his death in a small amount of copies. But let’s go back to the “Tractatus”.
What was it that created so much outrage? The book has two main subjects: a critical reading of the Hebrew Scriptures in the first 15 chapters, thereby providing a critique of revealed religion in general, and the emphasis on logical conclusions drawn from the texts and the history of these texts. The critical reading of the scriptures is followed by a conception of a democratic society in the last five chapters and outlines the idea that a democracy is the most natural expression of reason political entities can come close to. The critical perception of the scriptures leads to the fact that a literal interpretation of holy texts, which demands a mandatory obedience to the authorities who provide that interpretation is deeply connected to political tyranny. It is very important to note here that Spinoza explicitly stated a single cause and effect relationship. The literal or as some may say today “fundamentalist” reading of the Scripture is not the result of political terror or unrest, but political terror and dictatorship are the inevitable effects of religious fundamentalism. What the Scriptures actually express is not an absolute truth. But neither is religion just the “Opium of the people” (it’s more like cocaine), nor is religion just a conspiracy of the priests. Religion to cut it short is as a part of the human experience a matter of political power. It should be treated as a serious subject and needs to be grasped by a scientific approach. So, the reading of the Scriptures must only refer to the linguistic, historic and literal ingredients of the Scriptures itself.

“The ‘true meaning’ of a text, for Spinoza, consists of a correct account of the thought processes, assumptions and intended meanings of its author or authors, something which can be done only by carefully reconstructing both the historical and linguistic circumstances in which it was written and analysing the concepts used in terms of a strictly naturalistic interpretation of human nature, that is one that itself makes no appeal to super natural forces or authority. Given the facts of human nature and the complex ways such belief systems develop, this ‘true meaning’ of the text may not have much, or even anything, to do with truth of fact. For Spinoza, truth of fact is an absolute and purely physical reality grounded on the laws of ‘true’ philosophy and science, an explanation devoid of all super natural agents and forces, and all spirits and qualities separate from bodies , being expressed solely in terms of mechanistic cause and effect.” (Jonathan Israel, Introduction to the TTP; English edition, Cambridge 2007)

A critical reading of the Scripture meant in his own words that one must not “confuse the genuine sense of a passage with the truth of things, we must investigate a passage’s sense only from its use of the language or from reasoning which accepts no other foundation than Scripture itself.” (TTP 7, 2)

The declaration of unquestionable religious sources are always used as a political tool and produce necessarily violent societies. Democracy on the other hand is the promotion of individual freedom, freedom of speech, religious freedom and a secular state which guards the equality of all citizens.

“Spinoza’s most immediate aim in writing this text was to strengthen individual freedom and widen liberty of thought in Dutch society, in particular by weakening ecclesiastical authority and lowering the status of theology. In his opinion, it was these forces which were chiefly responsible for fomenting religious tensions and hatred, inciting political sedition among the common people, and enforcing damaging intellectual censorship on unconventional thinkers like himself.” (Jonathan Israel ibid.)

There were many heretics before him, who had doubts about the accuracy of the scriptures, regarding the miracles and the reliability of its historic narrative, but Spinoza’s great achievement was the change of methodology. The bible properly read is a matter of history and is therefore affected by logical, historical and linguistic errors, because: “There has never ever been a book without mistakes.” (TTP, X) The biblical authors are subjects of their time and their scriptures reflect historical circumstances. The Bible and the Scriptures have to be read as historical documents which provide insights to horizons and limits of its writers and hence what political purposes these revelations had served. No one had done this before with such a rigour and such extremely well designed logical arguments. Some of Spinoza’s critical remarks on the Bible may be outdated, historical irrelevant or just false, but his methodology became the blueprint of all historical and critical literature on the Scripture since then. He does not defy religion at all, because in the secular state he envisioned religion has its place in the fabric of society. The point is to criticise religion when it becomes politics. And this is the case when certain political events are interpreted as the will of god in favour of one party against the other. Spinozas idea of god was more than the heresy to say god doesn’t exist. Of course god exists, Spinoza would have answered, but he rejected the idea of a personal god as the creator of earth in seven days and a metaphysical presence who judges and rewards good deeds and punishes bad ones. He writes:

“By ‘God’s direction’, I mean the fixed and unalterable order of nature or the interconnectedness of [all] natural things. We have shown above, and have previously demonstrated elsewhere, that the universal laws of nature according to which all things happen and are determined, are nothing other than the eternal decrees of God and always involve truth and necessity.” (TTP, III)

For Spinoza god exists as nature, as the universe itself. God expresses himself in nature, he does not command, bend or change physical laws because he is the system of physical laws. When the idea is abandoned that a personal supernatural being interested in human affairs exists, the whole structure of religious authority becomes meaningless or at least dubious. Someone who has lived in these times which were torn apart by sectarian wars fought with unspeakable barbarity, must have intuitively understood what Spinoza meant. Only few considered it as the liberation of democratic debate from religious intervention and political oppression, as it is referred today, but rather as the liberation of even more sinister forces, which will destroy all of society. The idea that god has no personal existence (and most of all interest) which can be attracted, celebrated and revered terrified people enormously. In a world without god considered as a personal creator and guard, superstition and blind belief then becomes the real heresy and the old fashioned authorities were exactly aware what Spinoza was telling them. It was additionally very hard for them to find theological arguments against Spinoza. First his thoughts were trained and sharpened by the most sophisticated theological sources of the Rabbinic tradition. He was an expert of the Hebrew bible and did not talk about Christian scripture. He also did not fundamentally deny that the Hebrew bible contained some comforting spiritual truth, but rather than refuting certain theological dogma, he established a logical argument that there is no exceptionalism, but only universal equality among mankind and hence there is also among peoples, religions or creeds.

“The Hebrew people, accordingly, was chosen by God above others not for its understanding or for its qualities of mind, but owing to the form of its society and the good fortune, over so many years, with which it shaped and preserved its state. This is also fully evident from the Bible itself. Anyone who peruses it even superficially will clearly see that the Hebrews excelled other peoples in merely one thing: they conducted the affairs that affected their security of life successfully and overcame great dangers, and did so, on the whole, solely through God’s external assistance. In other respects, they were on the same footing as the rest of the nations, and God favoured all equally.” (TTP, III)

Some commentators did detect in these passages about the Hebrew people a very early programmatic argument for Zionism. But in fact Spinoza’s main argument is that not only the state has to become secular, but religion as well. He does not deny that Jews are a “chosen people”, but he is saying that being chosen does not make anyone special. Jews and Christians as well were both holding their breaths. What Spinoza now disguised as a commentary to religious matters, will later become a major theme in the “Ethics”: There is no Jewish exceptionalism and hence no human exceptionalism for either being. This is not only true for collective concepts, but for individuals as well.

“We conclude therefore (since God is well disposed to all men and the Hebrews were chosen only by reason of their society and state) that no individual Jew considered apart from his society and state possesses any gift from God beyond what other men have, nor is there any difference between him and a gentile.” (TTP, III)

Spinozas great achievement was to give equality as a political term a fully equipped philosophical foundation. Equality is a universal principle. Unlike Thomas Hobbes, his great rival in terms of political philosophy Spinoza trusted in science and reason to build political entities. While Hobbes favoured a strong state and a powerful ruler, who prevents civil war and guaranteed peace and stability with his monopoly of power, Spinoza favoured communication, debate and democratic decisions and voted for politics led by reason and science. Hobbes and Machiavelli suggested both in their own terms that civil war is a kind of natural state of human relationships that has to be overcome by strong-willed political force, but Spinoza did not think that war and destruction is a natural state. His concept of democracy was based on a positive conception of the people, not as an ethnic term, rather than as the “multitude”. His basic idea of the multitude is the idea that a minimal set of social order relationships always exists, which represents the natural state of human beings in terms of social order. There is no previous state to the social relationship between human beings, as Rousseau later has argued. A reasonable and scientific mind applied to the abilities of the multitude does not need to rely on a transcendental force or the establishment of a sovereign absolute power, but on the potentia of the human beings themselves. The social order of the multitude has to evolve into a self-organising system to enable government led by reason. The idea itself recalls concepts of autopoiesis, a theory of self-organising systems in nature, the biologists Maturana and Varela have introduced in the 80s, also Antonio Negri and Michael Hardts bestseller “Empire” relies heavily on Spinoza’s idea about the multitude and how it creates durable political bonds between individuals. But why Spinoza asks has this form of government failed to appear before? His explanation is again very surprising.

The daily occupation of common people to blame or attribute certain events in their life to godly interventions has the remarkable consequence that it blurs a general perception of cause and effect. For instance people who are afraid of thunder and lightning because they think it is an expression of god’s anger will lose at least parts of their fears when they are informed that thunder and lightning are indeed expressions of chemical processes in the atmosphere, which are not related to any supernatural wills. The knowledge of causes makes effects understandable and hence less arbitrary. The reason why people are caught in superstition and manipulating narratives is their inability to understand cause and effect, but simply telling them wouldn’t resolve the matter because there are always social orders, institutions and political purposes why a certain understanding of cause and effect are not considered as useful for political rule. The wrongness of the practice itself, to attribute daily events to godly intervention, is not so much its content but rather its function to support authoritarian rule. Without proper knowledge of cause and effect people are easy to manipulate. The relationship between masses and dictatorship is handled with the help of organised religion and enforces thereby obedience, sometimes violently sometimes deliberately. Where the scriptures contradict reason, science and physics in general, religion becomes a tool of power. The exposure of the fact itself was sufficient to shock the established authorities. While the Tractatus was more or less immediately put on an index of forbidden books by the Catholic Church, the Jewish orthodoxy was appalled by Spinozas abandonment of any sacred nature of their Scripture and never forgave him his brilliant rejection of any religious exceptionalism. Also Leo Strauss whose text on the TTP I have quoted was very critical of Spinozas general abandonment of revealed religion and was arguing that Spinoza was going too far in his effort to make room for logic and reason.

But there are many other critics of Spinoza from very different spots of the debate. What philosophers like Hegel mostly miss in Spinozas doctrine is a concept of teleology, an argument for a goal or a final meaning of existence. Spinozas point is very easy to understand: There is no goal of nature and no final meaning in the existence of the universe. In a scientific mind cause and effect are not clearly evident but subject to constant questions and exploration. From a scientific point of view we cannot determine the effect when we are not aware of the cause which may be not deterministic at all. Spinoza defies all teleology in order to make space for a perceptive scientific frame of mind. Instead of wasting time and effort to conclude final meanings and goals, he assumes that the most precious duty of human beings is to respect life and nature and to take care of oneself. He explains:

“All things which we honestly desire may be reduced to three principal categories:

(i) to understand things through their primary causes

(ii) to control the passions, that is to acquire the habit of virtue

(iii) and, lastly, to live securely and in good health.” (TTP, III)

What else is there to say?

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